by John Vannie
For Notre Dame’s suddenly vulnerable football team, there is more at stake on Saturday night than a victor’s right to plant a flag in conquered territory. The Irish can kill two birds with a solid, winning performance – exorcise the demons of last week’s disaster and gain revenge over a pesky rival by knocking Michigan State from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Despite all the brave talk from Notre Dame fans this week regarding how the Irish are likely to take out their frustration against the Spartans and beat them handily, football games rarely follow that script. The contest will be hard fought and the winner will be the team that runs the ball more effectively and defends the big play in the passing game.
Based on the season’s results to date, Michigan State appears to have an edge in both areas. The Spartans racked up 335 rushing yards last week against Pitt, and still had enough fuel to add 198 more through the air.
Senior Quarterback Drew Stanton leads a diverse attack that hasn’t changed very much from the version that scored 44 points last season in South Bend during an overtime win. Stanton has big and fast receivers in Matt Trannon, Kerry Reed and Terry Love. He can also hand off, pitch or throw the ball to a trio of physical running backs in Javon Ringer, Jehuu Caulcrick and A. J. Jimmerson.
If that is not enough for a defense to worry about, Stanton is an excellent running threat and has a knack for scoring touchdowns on option keepers in the red zone. As determined as the visitors are this week, it will be a tremendous accomplishment to slow down the Spartan offense.
The Irish must defend the whole field, and this means that three cornerbacks need to be able to hold up in single coverage against experienced and talented receivers. Linemen must put pressure on Stanton without letting him scramble for big gains, and linebackers and safeties must be sure tacklers against quality running backs. In short, Notre Dame must play extremely well against an offense that is no less potent than Michigan’s.
Of course, the Irish can help themselves by not handing MSU 24 cheap points as they did against the Wolverines. Brady Quinn needs to reestablish himself as the leader of the team by performing well on Saturday. He has shown only flashes of his 2005 form this season, but the running game and defense are not good enough to win when he is not decisive and accurate.
While Michigan State’s defense is not the equal of the first three Irish opponents, the Spartans return several excellent players. Linebackers Kaleb Thornhill and David Herron, Jr. defend the run well behind a respectable defensive line led by tackle Clifton Ryan. The Spartans play five defensive backs in their base defense. Free safety Otis Wiley and cornerback Demond Williams are very talented and will not be easily beaten.
There is no doubt that Notre Dame will be highly motivated at kickoff. Coach Weis will devise successful running plays and make sure that Quinn gets off to a good start with short, crisp passes. This Spartan team will hit them in the mouth at some point in the first half, however, and it will be interesting to see if Notre Dame can sustain the momentum in the face of adversity.
The outcome will hinge on their ability to maintain a balanced attack throughout, keep the defense off the field and avoid costly turnovers. Defensively, the Irish must force Michigan State to earn every point. The Spartans will score against Notre Dame, but the points had better not come in bunches or on 30+ yard plays.
Michigan State’s specialists are also quite good. Punter Brandon Fields is among the nation’s best and kicker Brett Swenson has made everything under 50 yards this season. Their return teams are average and should not pose a significant problem for the Irish cover teams.
The matchups are as follows:
Position / Advantage
Quarterback – Even
Running Back – Michigan State
Wide Receivers – Even
Tight Ends – Notre Dame
ND OLine vs. MSU DLine – Even
MSU OLine vs. ND DLine – Even
Linebackers – Michigan State
Secondary – Even
Punting – Even
Kicking – Michigan State
Return Teams – Notre Dame
Intangibles – Even
The Spartans have the advantage of the home crowd and the knowledge that they can beat Notre Dame. They have played well to date, although they have not faced a particularly strong opponent. The Irish are capable of winning, but they must improve dramatically at quarterback, along the offensive line and in pass coverage. This is a tall order, and I don’t think they’ll quite be able to pull it off.
MICHIGAN STATE 31 NOTRE DAME 28
Game notes: In honor of the 40th anniversary of the 1966 “Game of the Century”, both teams will wear commemorative patches on the front of their game jerseys. Two-time All-American Bubba Smith will become just the third player in Michigan State football history to have his jersey number (No. 95) retired during a special pre-game ceremony.